Like George Floyd, I'm scared every day... in Switzerland

Jacqueline Chelliah

I'm not a reporter, I'm a member of the team. Over the last few months, I have been in contact with many readers in our Geneva audience for a subscription renewal, a technical problem, a password, a reader question. But I love words, press and books.

I've never felt the pressure of a policeman's knee on my throat. I've never even had to face a police check. I am 36 years old, I am lucky to have been born, raised and live in an area that many consider one of the most beautiful in the world. And yet, I feel the same fear as George Floyd in Minneapolis. I feel it every day.

Sometimes I find it hard to be here at all because I don't look like the Swiss "norm". Through many subterfuges, I try to blend in with my white entourage so that I can live as serenely as possible. And yet I keep hearing words that terrify me.

"You black piece of shit," said a classmate in 4th grade. "A nigger can't work," shot off a member of my family, a white man, who had worked for several years in the oil trade in Africa. He said it at home, behind a half-open door, in front of my own mother, also white. I was 15 years old.

"You are cute with your mixed race look, but you (me), no way… you’re definitely not the type of girl our customers are into, and and it’s not even like you have the body of a model," replied the owner of a posh bar in Geneva where a friend and I were looking for a part-time student gig.

I've heard many theories and certainties about people of colour, jokes about colonisation, frizzy hair. And also small remarks, sometimes well-intentioned, but tinged with condescension.

  • You'll get along well, he's black too.

  • On top of it, he’s black!

  • You express yourself very well in French (extremely surprised).

  • I have always liked black women with long, straight hair, other cuts don't appeal to me (to liberate myself from my hair, I finally dared to cut it short, very short).

  • Every summer: well you certainly got yourself a strong tan!

  • You'll probably have a hard time finding an apprenticeship.

  • You should be happy to have a job!

In fact, my professional “glass ceiling” in Switzerland is not very high. It's only recently that I realized this, even though I've always had interesting positions in large companies... in which I was often the only black person. There's no one like me on Swiss television. No one like me in Swiss newspapers either, except for athletes and Tidjane Thiam, the former CEO of Credit Suisse.

My greatest fear, the one that gives me serious gut pains, sometimes even at work, is the violence of words, racism that's not at all ordinary. Always being on high alert, staying calm when someone allows themself to make a joke that's not at all funny. Not to be seen as someone who constantly takes offense at things that are supposedly funny, when they’re simply not. Pretend to smile when you feel like screaming.

That's why I'm afraid, like George and so many others that society ignores, humiliates and belittles on a daily basis. Loneliness in the face of a losing battle is sometimes as asphyxiating as a policeman's knee on one’s throat.

Most of my friends are white, and they will be stunned when they read these lines. It is not that I cannot talk to them about the systemic and endemic racism in our country. They can’t imagine for a second that I might experience this kind of thing on a daily basis. And I can’t even blame them, because we love each other as we are, beyond the colour of our skin.

Since George Floyd's death and the anti-racist protests, only one friend has asked me how I feel. She asked me if I was sad. Her question challenged me because no, I'm not sad, I'm mostly angry, for all the times I've experienced racism without saying anything. As for one of my only black friends, who lives in London, she wrote to me: "At least this time, they cannot ignore us, they cannot pretend nothing has happened. They have to listen. This pandemic has made people more attentive, more vulnerable, more willing to listen, and this can be seen in the many peaceful demonstrations happening right now in the United States, but also in France, in London and even in your home country of Switzerland".

She is right, and it was after this exchange that I wrote to our editorial director, Serge Michel, to tell him what was on my mind. That I was enraged, frustrated to read all of these articles, these comments, these editorials being published in Switzerland or elsewhere, including from our own staff, written by journalists who do not look like me and who cannot understand what it is like to live in the shoes of a George Floyd or a Jacqueline Chelliah.

BLACK. I hate the word "black" when they say it in french as an euphemism for a PERSON WHO IS BLACK. We do have a word in french for my color and it is NOIR. Not Black. Why are we so fearful of the actual real word? I am claiming my colour, my identity, loud and clear, because it is as beautiful as yours.

My mother is white. Swiss-German. My father is of Sri Lankan descent. My younger sister is of Indian origin, adopted like me. My other sister is of mixed race, conceived by my parents. This is my "Benetton" family, beautiful on glossy paper. Parents and sisters that I love deeply, who gave me a beautiful and cherished childhood as well as many opportunities. A family that, sadly, was broken up by a divorce when I was 12 years old.

My biological mother, originally from Lagos, Nigeria, had the courage to give birth to me in 1984 when she was 17 years old, at a private boarding school in Leysin, in the Swiss Alps. She obviously came from a family with high means, but she found herself very alone facing motherhood. Nevertheless, she made it possible for me to be born in Geneva and be adopted a few weeks later. Sometimes, when I feel my solitude in the face of this blatant racism, I think of her, of her strength, of her gift of having given me life. An amazing life, by the way. In those moments, I tell myself that for black women like her, for black men like George Floyd, whose murder may finally make a difference, I owe it to myself to live. To represent my skin colour, of which I am proud and which makes me shine. I'm Swiss, just like you. I love this country more than anything. So I owe it to myself to keep living and to keep hope.

link - This article was originally published in French in' Point du jour, Saturday 6 June 2020.